Human Form: cosmetic surgery as a tool of social oppression to eliminate individuality and identity

Noh Doyeon, “Human Form” (2014)

A deeply unsettling short film about a teenage schoolgirl’s quest to change her appearance through plastic surgery to attain physical beauty and perfection, and not feel so alienated in a world where everyone looks beautiful thanks to cosmetic surgery, “Human Form” investigates issues of conformity and acceptance in South Korean society and the pressures people are under to comply with social standards. Inhyung (Kim Siyeon) has been drawing pictures of women’s faces since she was a small girl. Her mother (Kang Sunhee) proudly puts up the pictures on the wall at home. As the years pass, the pictures portray faces that look more and more the same, with narrow noses and pointy chins. As we gradually see the faces of the significant adults in Inhyung’s life, we discover that not only do they all look much the same but they also resemble the faces Inhyung is drawing.

Inhyung becomes desperate to change her appearance, even though mum and older sister (physically changed themselves) assure her that she looks good just as she is. Cosmetic surgery is expensive so Inhyung visits a clinic engaged in plastic surgery “research” after seeing advertisements requesting volunteers. She signs a form waiving away her rights if the procedure goes wrong and she soon goes into the operating theatre. Under anaesthesia, she dreams about the face she will have and her mother’s approval. Unfortunately the operating surgeon is in trouble as the procedure does not go according to plan.

Viewers never find out what has really happened to Inhyung but we can imagine that the girl will have to live with deep shame and trauma and the anger of other members in her family. The very minimal style of filming and acting throws emphasis on the pressure Inhyung feels through the examples of her own family members and of the medical staff she meets, and through society generally, to comply with impossible standards of physical beauty, starting with the pictures she draws that reflect what she sees around her and absorbs without question. The film’s criticism of the role cosmetic surgery plays in South Korean society can be seen as a criticism generally of what is wrong in modern South Korean culture with its extreme emphasis on conformity at the cost of individual identity and creativity.